Travel writer and photographer Donatas Gricius shares with us his trip to Iraq. He details his immersion into Baghdad’s culture, including, art and food. Followed by his experience of Iftar and the cultural optimism.
First-person Travel to Baghdad, Iraq: Words and photography by Donatas Gricius
Karada, Baghdad. 6 am, crossing the Tigris River, feeling the pulse of my heart accelerating as I try to understand where I am. There are streets covered by dust, a maze of electric wires crossing buildings, an army patrolling every corner, and feelings of nervousness pervade the air. Still, I know that things will get better. Soon the veil uncovers this once world-capital-of-culture and reveals how important, rich, and beautiful this place is.
My wife, who is from Iraq, was planning to visit her family back home. So, I asked, “could I go to Iraq with you?”. We had no idea if this was even possible. After a few weeks of processing my visa, I was called to the Iraqi embassy to come with my passport. And that was it! It was a less frightening process than I’d thought it would be, but that was the easiest part of this journey. Research about Baghdad made me feel nervous more than anything else. Every article featured historical sites to visit but no information about its culture, people, art, food – the things that I’m interested in. So, here’s my newly-acquired wisdom on these subjects for travel to Baghdad.
I was very fortunate to be hosted by my wife’s friends, Ammar and Noor, who were the friendliest people I have ever met.
Ammar kept me not only safe but also on my toes. He took me to various places at various times in the day, starting from as early as 9 am to as late as 2 am, every day for one week straight. He introduced me to his cousin, brother, friends and other people, so I could see how people live in this part of the world.
Have I mentioned that my visit took place during Ramadan? A religious holiday that entails fasting for most of the Islamic population until Iftar (when the sun sets and you are allowed to stop fasting). Consequently, this was the best and most culturally enriching time to visit Baghdad. I could see people celebrate Ramadan first-hand and the nightlife this time elicits.
Seeing the Sights
My dear friend Ammar selflessly spent his energy waking up early and showing me the city while everyone was fasting. First stop was the famous Souq Al-Saray. A true labyrinth of narrow streets lined with products, such as jewellery, clothes, swords, daggers, and even magic lamps! It felt like walking into a 14th century Iraq where merchants from the Silk Road would meet to exchange silk, precious metals and ideas.
The starting point of the Souq has a statue of one of the greatest Iraqi poets, Al-Mutanabbi. This opened to the newly renovated Al-Mutanabbi Street, where most of the Arab literature is sold. To truly get a sense of how much literature they have, my wife told me, “if you want any book, just ask a bookseller. He will find it for you; if not, he will look into the warehouse down the street, will ask a neighbour or will order to make sure you’ll get what you want”.
Culture and Art
I came across a publishing house called Almada Group. It had black and white pictures of important figures along the stairs leading to the library. Later that day, I showed these pictures to Noor’s father. While sipping his Arabic coffee and enjoying delicious baklava, he told me the names of the people in the photos. Poets, singers, writers, movie stars and architects – people who once made Iraq the cultural capital of the world. Names like Ahmad al-Safi al Najafi, Badr Shakir al- Sayyab, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and Zaha Hadid translated Iraqi culture into a
language that the world could understand.
An important aspect of Iraqi culture is its art. From brightly coloured drawings representing how people used to live, women with wide eyes, to Baghdadi houses and life in the desert. Baghdadi art is visible at every corner of the city. With giant murals on the sides of buildings, paintings on the walls in every cafe, and in most people’s homes. Art is interlaced with Iraqi culture and history.
I was eager to see the Babylon doors. And to my surprise, I was able to see a few around the city. The biggest one is in the Rotana Babylon Hotel, alongside some smaller ones in the Babylon Mall and the art gallery Al-Qishla building. I met the art gallery owner Hashim Mohammad there, who told me about the British who moved the original Babylon door and its art pieces to the British Museum in London. In his gallery, he collects Iraqi art and showcases how culturally rich Baghdad is today through artists’ work.
Back in the street, Ammar and his cousin were driving through districts to show me the city’s sights.
Such as the Al-Shaheed Monument, which is dedicated to martyrs from the war between Iraq and Iran. When we reached there, they took me to a floor below the two giant spheres where Saddam ordered to write the names of every person who lost their lives during the war. Even after over five minutes of walking around, we had still only reached the middle of the names listed. Nevertheless, it gave a sense of how many people lost their lives and the importance of identity not being forgotten.
Another historical site to mention is Nasb Enqath Al-Thaqafa, a monument representing the protection of the culture. It contains Sumerians’ Cuneiform symbols, transporting you back to the Mesopotamian age.
While visiting the tourist sights, there were no crowds of tourists as you would expect in Rome, Paris or London. Rather, it was only me. It’s a huge shame because Iraq has so much history and legacy forgotten by a ruling western world.
I joined the family for Iftar. They gathered at a table to enjoy the most delicious Baghdadi fish – Masgouf. And I had the pleasure of sourcing it and seeing how it’s prepared.
I visited a fish seller in the afternoon to order the fish, at which point it was still swimming happily in its little box. Later it was smoked vertically on a fire pit built off the road. After this, I went to a bakery shop to order one of my favourite breads. Watching the skillful hands of young bakers prepare samoon bread and take it from the oven, still warm and ready for the dinner table, was an immensely gratifying experience.
During the subsequent family gathering, my wife and I were received warmly and with so much joy. The hospitality went beyond the dinner. After we finished eating, we moved to another living room to enjoy a choice of tea or coffee, and sweets, to continue our long conversations. And then, at around 10pm, the night comes to life!
In my experience, Iraqis love cars. They buy the latest model American cars like Chevrolet, Dodge, and Cadillac to race in the busy streets of Baghdad. Everyone will rush to get a table in their favourite restaurant. After which, they will spend the night until 2-4 am with their families. Many are located on the other side of the river Tigris, which separates Rusafa from a district called Karkh. Baghdad has a fast-growing hospitality industry, opening luxury restaurants and social clubs for families who come in the night for a late-night meal, smoke shisha, sip tea and, in some places, listen to live performances. Some clubs, like Coral Palace, have expansive gardens with a café, restaurant, gym, playground for kids and hotel for guests.
The Night’s Last Meal
“Are you hungry?” Ammar asked. “I can eat”, I responded. “Falafel or Kebab?”. The last part of a night like this is marked by a late dinner. This time around I chose falafel.
During my time in Baghdad, I learned not to finish the dish I was eating, otherwise it would summon another. On this particular evening, we visited a restaurant called Faleh Flefal, famous for its falafel and amber sauce made of mango. And let me tell you, it was the best falafel I have ever had!
But another night, when Ammar asked me the same question, I responded Kebab. He took us to Abo Ali restaurant, well-known by locals. Even at 1 am, the grilled meat and kidneys arrived with freshly baked bread and torshi (aka. marinated pickles – locals go crazy about them)!
Iraq’s Baghdad | Conclusion
The following day, life imitated the day before. People went to work, fasted for Ramadan and waited until the Iftar to get back to the same table and meet their loved ones. It’s a daily routine enjoyed by everyone, filled with teas, shisha, sweets and busy streets. It was easy to forget about the war that so often precedes its reputation, the army on every corner of the city and the dusted streets. I could perceive Baghdad for what it truly is. For people living here, hopes remain high that by keeping their routines, Baghdad will return to the city it used to be.
My wife and I are genuinely grateful for the immense hospitality to Ammar, Noor and their family. It will never be forgotten.
First-person Travel to Baghdad, Iraq: Words and photography by Donatas Gricius